The Academic Physics Job Market

In the neverending debates about the current state of physics– see, for example, Bee’s thoughtful post about The trouble With Physics, you will frequently hear it said that the academic job market in physics sucks. But what, exactly, does that mean in quantitative terms?

It’s job hunting season in academia now– still a little early in the season, maybe, but most places that are looking to make a tenure-track hire are probably accepting applications already. So I did a little poking around the Physics Today job listings to see what the numbers look like. This is the central clearing house for jobs in physics, so it ought to give a reasonable sense of what the market is like at the moment.

Looking at job ads posted between September 1, 2007 and September 20, 2007 (the September 1 cut-off chosen because that’s where I got sick of scrolling back through job ads), I see 105 potentially permanent positions listed in the US and Canada in the “College/ University, Physics” and “Faculty, Physics” categories. This does not include post-doc positions, but does include things like “Research associate” and “Laboratory Manager.”

We can break these down a little further, by whether they’re looking for experimentalists or theorists. Any job ad listing a “preference” for one or the other, I counted as a position in that speciality, whether or not they were willing to accept applications from the other group. The market is such that if you prefer an experimentalist, you will be able to find one, and not have to settle for a theorist.

Of the ads I looked at, 32 positions were specifically designated as experimentalist jobs, with only 12 theory positions. 53 did not express a preference (this includes most of the astrophysics and astronomy positions). I didn’t attempt to compile statistics on research field, but my qualitative impression was that biophysics is really hot right now, and probably accounted for a large plurality of the jobs.

The vast majority of these jobs were at universities– I counted 11 at schools that I recognize as small colleges. Only eight of those jobs were non-tenure-track positions, which is a low-ball estimate because there’s some category filtering. Seven positions were aimed at senior faculty– either associate or full professor positions.

So, if you’re a young Ph.D. in physics, doing experimental research, there are probably fifty-ish jobs you can apply for, if you’re willing to stretch the definition of research fields a little (a total of 85 positions that are potentially for experimentalists, but many of those specify a research area that would rule out a lot of candidates). If you’re a theorist, you’re looking at less than half of that.

Now, this is really just a lower limit on the jobs available for this year. Many ads won’t be posted until October 1, or even later. The AIP’s Statistical Research Center reports something like 350 tenured or tenure-track hires in 2002 and 2004, so that seems like a reasonable estmate for the final number. This post would probably be more accurate about three weeks from now, but I thought of it now, so take what you can get.

Of course, the real measure of the suckitude of a job market is not the absolute number of available jobs, but the comparison between the jobs available and the number of job seekers. Turning again to the AIP, we find that there were something like 1,200 Ph.D.’s in Physics awarded in 2005, plus another hundred or so in Astronomy. So there’s your lower bound for the number of people potentially looking for academic jobs– not all of those 1,300 will be looking, but there will be people from other Ph.D. years on the market as well, so 1,300 is probably the minimum number of job seekers.

So, that’s what we means when we say that the job market in academic physics sucks. Enjoy your Friday!